Hang on to your seats!
Ladies and gentleman, we are floating in space – time travel is possible. Don’t believe it? Come with me.
Let’s go back to 1997 to be exact, a time when the UK was basking in the rays of a newly-elected Labour government and everything in life seemed peachy and full of promise.
I was getting into David Bowie and was the proud owner of his Singles Collection, a generous two-cassette compilation I’d got for my birthday. I was very fond of ‘Rebel Rebel’ and made the cardinal mistake of informing a friend of a friend of my joyous discovery.
‘David Bowie?’ he snorted. ‘Huh! He’s well ancient!’ By the look on his face, you’d have thought I’d have told him I’d been listening to Perry Como or Vera Lynn.
Sensing blood, this discerning young fellow followed up for the kill. ‘Why don’t you stay in your own time?’ he demanded. And I went away crestfallen.
This individual, whose name I shan’t give, was a maths student at my sixth-form and judging by his conversation, his twin interests in life seemed to revolve around his course and running. That was it.
I later challenged him by asking what musical offerings floated his boat and got the gruff response ‘Ocean Colour Scene.’
You may not remember them, but they were a fairly pleasant indie-rock band who I’ve just discovered via the miracles of Google, are still with us. Their best-known hit was probably ‘The Day We Caught the Train’ or at least that’s the one I remember best, having once owned it on one of those Now ninety-something tapes long ago.
I have nothing against Ocean Colour Scene. They were, and I’m sure are, a perfectly listenable group. But I’d hardly want to spend the rest of my life listening to ’em purely because they are (or were) ‘from my own time.’
In fact, my friend’s (I use the word loosely) attitude is illuminating if reeking of philistinism. The notion of ‘sticking to one’s time’ essentially means being terrified to branch lest the tentacles of curiosity should grab you and you vanish in a puff of cultural smoke, never to be seen again.
Had I followed his suggestion to the letter this would have meant one of two things. Either:
a) I would be banned from listening to any music produced before my own lifetime – or
b) I would only be able to listen to contemporary music
My mind revolts at these appalling alternatives. Were I banned from listening to anything before my own lifetime (I am a kid of the eighties) I’d have missed out on the Beatles, the Stones and the Who, most good punk and psychedelia and that’s before we even start on jazz, blues and classical. I would be penalised simply for having emerged from my mother’s womb too late for the proverbial party, long past the point where Earth’s culture had reached its creative event horizon.
As for the latter, well, clearly that’s even worse. The post-2000 music scene is infested with garbage while would make finding good fresh stuff (bar reissues of old classics) a nightmare.
Needless to say, I followed my contemporary’s advice on music as I would his advice on pretty much anything and ignored it. And since that day, my music addiction has only got stronger and my horizons broader. If I am in the throes of vice at least it’s doing my soul some good if not always my bank balance.
So why is time travel possible? Well until a Quantum Leap-style machine gets built, music is the best way we have of revisiting the past, both our own and that of centuries past.
The oldest CD I possess, in terms of when the music was composed, is ‘A Feather on the Breath of God’ by Hildegaard de Bingen, a 12th Century Abbess and mystic. The music therein is ghostly, otherworldly and, if you’re in the right mood, divine.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re streaming, downloading or using shiny discs, bits of plastic and magnetic tape or flat black discs which crackle into life as the stylus hits them – it’s the music which counts and the travelling it makes possible. At the push of a button, you can travel to the world of Machaut, Josquin or Palestrina and hear their harmonies for yourself. You can hang out with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell or Bill Evans and absorb their ideas. And it’s not just limited by time, either, there’s recorded music from every section of the globe with limitless choice before you.
And with so many goodies now available for free online, if you have never sampled beyond your own default palate you’re either living in North Korea or simply aren’t very curious about the world around you – both of which are a crying shame.
It’s now nearly 20 years since that conversation I had with my incurious associate and while my CD collection is modest compared with some, I’m still the proud owner of a sizable number and have heard music from all corners of the globe and from every century from the last 1,000 years. As Goethe said, he who cannot draw on 3,000 years is living hand to mouth – and while musically that might be a bit of a stretch, at least I’m prepared to make the effort.
There’s another side to it, too. With the world around us changing so radically, it’s vital we don’t let the baby go down the plughole when we’re emptying the bath. Some things are worth hanging on to and it’s up to all of us who care about culture to be a curator of the stuff, even if it is only in our own small way.
If our technocracy should crash and burn tomorrow they’ll want good music to dance to once they rebuild the world – providing they can get the power up and running of course. If the kids wanna hear what the fuss was about Mozart, Monteverdi or Megadeth, then I’m their man.